Torrance city employees--including three policemen fired last year after they allegedly lied about the shooting of an unarmed man--may be permitted to appeal disciplinary actions in private.
The Torrance City Council will vote Tuesday on an amendment to the city code that would permit secret hearings, in some cases, for employees fighting firings, suspensions and other discipline.
Currently, hearings are held in public before the Civil Service Commission for all Torrance employees who appeal disciplinary actions.
The proposed code amendment, to be considered by the City Council at its 5:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday at City Hall, would permit the Civil Service Commission to close hearings at its discretion.
The question of whether to hold open or closed hearings points up seemingly contradictory state laws: those that protect the privacy of citizens--and in particular police personnel records--and those that require an open airing of the public’s business.
“It really turns on a balancing of the public interest and the private interest,” said Frederick N. Merkin, a senior assistant city attorney for the city of Los Angeles who has supported a policy of open disciplinary hearings.
The effort to close some hearings in Torrance comes just four months after a dozen speakers asked the City Council to establish a civilian review board to bring more openness to police misconduct inquiries.
Year of Publicity
The call for a review board--which the council did not support--climaxed a year during which Torrance police received extensive publicity for three alleged acts of police brutality.
The proposed amendment to the Torrance law was initiated in January by lawyers for former Torrance Officer Timothy Thornton, one of the officers fired last fall after an incident in which a fellow officer, Timothy Pappas, shot an unarmed man, partially paralyzing his arm. Court documents filed in a related criminal case allege that the shooting was accidental, but that Pappas, Thornton and Officer Mark Holden lied to superiors to make it appear that a sudden movement by the victim, Patrick Coyle, provoked the shooting.
The three officers were fired after the incident and all three have asked the Civil Service Commission to reinstate them. Thornton’s hearing before the commission is scheduled first, on April 10. His lawyers have filed a brief insisting that state law requires the hearing to be closed.
To hold a secret hearing, the city would have to amend its code.
On Monday, the Torrance Civil Service Commission voted to recommend that the City Council permit closed hearings in some cases.
Elizabeth G. Clark, senior deputy city attorney, said in an interview that when disciplined employees ask for a closed hearing, the amendment would allow the commission to “weigh the employee’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know” in deciding whether a hearing should be open or closed.
Under the proposed amendment, the commission would have to permit an open hearing when an employee asked for one.
In supporting the amendment, Clark points to the state Constitution’s provision of a right to privacy for all citizens, and to exemptions in the state’s public records law that provide for some personnel records to remain private.
Clark said that a section of the Penal Code also specifically states that police personnel records--including “complaints or investigations of complaints"--are confidential and not to be disclosed “in any criminal or civil proceeding.”
Clark said Torrance police officers and other employees should not be forced to give up these privacy rights in order to pursue their right to a hearing before the Civil Service Commission.
A report prepared by Clark says that Torrance is “out of sync” with cities that do hold private hearings. “As far as we know we are the only public agency in the state that has it this way,” said Civil Service Administrator Bill Ghio.
A check by The Times, however, found that several other police agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, hold public hearings for officers who challenge discipline against them.
The LAPD, in fact, withstood a legal challenge this week to its practice of permitting the public to attend its police boards of rights hearings.
The Public’s Business
Los Angeles Police Officer Patrick Bradshaw had filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, arguing that the city negligently infringed on his privacy rights under the state Constitution when it held his disciplinary hearing in public and later announced a five-day suspension.
But Judge John Zembrowski disagreed, saying that Bradshaw had “no constitutional right of privacy in records which constitute the conduct of the public’s business.” The judge said Bradshaw’s hearing was not the type of “criminal or civil proceeding” in which complaints against police officers must be kept confidential.
The judge did not elaborate on his ruling, and he declined to comment because another part of the case is pending.
The law requiring that police records be kept confidential was approved by the Legislature in 1978 to protect officers from undue harassment by citizens involved in civil and criminal cases. Defendants in criminal cases and plaintiffs in lawsuits would often use personnel files to build cases against police officers, Merkin said.
Union Wants Private Hearings
The Legislature wanted to prevent such abuse but had no intention of closing public hearings with the 1978 law, according to Merkin, the assistant Los Angeles city attorney, and other supporters of public hearings.
Representatives of the Torrance police union said they will appear Tuesday to argue for private disciplinary hearings. Officers have said that public hearings hold officers up to undue scrutiny.
The public “has the right to expect a high standard from police,” said Al Cooper, Sacramento lobbyist for several police groups, “but they don’t have the right to expect (police) to be gods all the time.”
Police unions have argued that public scrutiny of their members will discourage others from becoming police officers.
But Merkin said police must be held to a higher standard than others because they work for the public and “have the power of life and death.”
Coyle, 32, the construction worker whose arm was paralyzed after he was shot by Pappas, said he hopes the police officers will have to fight for their jobs in public.
“I believe they should keep (the hearings) open,” Coyle said. “The only way I can see them (closing the hearings) is to protect one individual--the officer.”